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The Odd (Retail) Couple

If there’s any synergy between two of the newest businesses sharing a Smith Avenue storefront on St. Paul’s West Side, it’s in the curiosity over their unusual juxtaposition of products.

Customers who come to the corner for women’s stylish high heels and those heading for the store next door to buy a custom-made wooden coffin seem like they’d be from different demographic universes.

Shakir Taliaferro, owner of I Dream of Heels, and his neighbor Mike Zoff. who owns Affordable Coffins & Artery, LLC, are glad to share the building, even if they may not share many clients. More retail—of all kinds—helps their businesses thrive, and it also means that area residents don’t have to drive so far to shop, said Taliaferro, who opened his store last November.

Colorful and Dangerous

A long wall in I Dream of Heels showcases heels--sleek, colorful and some that even look slightly dangerous--along with boots and flats, aimed mostly at 18- to 38-year-old women. New for summer are bright heels and wedges. Out on the polished wood floor are racks of dresses, skirts, casual tops and pants.

“Our focus is basically to have classy shoes, real nice shoes that ladies can pick up and not break their pocketbook and be able to put a whole bunch of outfits together for what they probably would just pay for the shoes,” said Taliaferro, who’s helped many male and female clients and friends shop.  His clothes and shoes, which he describes as “edgy and pushing the envelope,” are all under $50.

Green to the End

Zoff’s pushing a different envelope next door with his simple, eco-friendly custom coffins, which start at under $300. What began as a woodworking hobby has become a fast-growing business tapping into a movement that’s about more than saving money. His customers are often in their 70s but he finds younger people are also shopping for their parents.

“We’re selling more than coffins here,” Zoff said. “There are different ways people are looking at it.”
Customers reject paying hundreds or thousands more for a traditional coffin that has the same purpose, he said.

Working with ¾-inch pine or cedar plywood in his Arden Hills garage (he also can be persuaded to use oak), Zoff offers five styles, all suitable for cremation. He’ll make a completely biodegradable, screw-free, pegged coffin. Staining is an option but Zoff emphasizes that his coffins aren’t fine cabinetry. “I build a pretty good deck but I’m lousy at trimming a house.”

Still “artery” is in the store name partly because each of Zoff’s creations is unique. In his bright, warmly decorated shop, he’s bringing a dark subject into the open. “We’re breaking the angst level down,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be gloom and doom.”

They may be one of the oddest couples in St. Paul retail but Taliaferro and Zoff have one thing in common besides a roof: both are committed to personalized service that no big-box can match.Said Taliaferro, “I think the whole atmosphere that we have here is a place where customers can come in and actually feel like a person and not a number.”

Susan Klemond's last article for The Line was a report on New York urban farming advocate Karen Washington's local appearance, in our April 4, 2012 issue.

Photos, top to bottom:

Shakir Taliaferro

Mike Zoff

Photos by Bill Kelley
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